Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Review: New English Art Club Annual Exhibition 2019

Last Thursday, I attended the Private View of the New English Art Club's Annual Exhibition 2019 - however the PV was so well attended and the galleries so packed that I was unable to get an impression of the artwork as a whole. I could see paintings - but couldn't stand back from many or see the whole - and how it "hung together".

photograph taken from the end of the main gallery, during the speeches at 6pm
So I decided to make a return visit - not being aware that I would be suffering the equivalent of "exhibition jetlag" by the weekend! (It's been very, very busy for three weeks!) So I went back again yesterday, with a fresh eye, and this is my review of the exhibition.

Key points are:
  • 385 paintings, prints and drawings in the exhibition by members and (to be counted) artists selected from the open entry. Of these 
    • 300 were by 82 members, 
    • 8 were by 6 members of other FBA societies and 
    • 77 were by 66 artists via the open entry
    • more about metrics at the end
  • Sales look reasonably good. I counted 43 sales (11%) yesterday - with a few members selling more than one painting.
Melissa Scott-Miller (paintings in the centre) is selling well - surprise surprise! ;) 
  • The President of NEAC stated very clearly at the opening of the exhibition that this is emphatically NOT an open exhibition. It's an annual exhibition by members and the vast majority of artwork is by members and although lots want to exhibit and be members only a very few are chosen each year. There is space for a small numbers of other artists to exhibit alongside members and candidates. More commentary on this below.
  • It's a patchy exhibition - some parts and some artists excel while others are nondescript. I will explain below...
  • It's sad to see so many paintings by very senior members who are well past their best. 
  • Most is quite traditional ("impressionistic") and there's very little that is very contemporary - in terms of subject matter, media and style.  That might well be something to do with the ratio of members to open work and the average age of members....
The New English Art Club Annual Exhibition is a chance to experience the very best in figurative, observational and painterly work in the UK.

It showcases paintings, drawings and prints from its elected members alongside work by emerging artists whose ethos reflects its own: informed by the visual world and personal interpretation; and underpinned by drawing. Mall Galleries Introduction
  • Some of the artists selected via the Open have been "emerging" for very many years(!) and are respected members of other FBA Societies. It doesn't leave much room for genuinely new art by genuinely new artists. I think the rationale behind the exhibition needs a rethink as to scope.
The exhibition continues across all three galleries at the Mall Galleries until 22nd June 2019. 

You can also see all the works online by scrolling down this page on the Mall Galleries website. Note that if you click the link it takes you to a page where you can express an interest in purchasing a work (and the Mall Galleries operates the Own Art Scheme meaning you can pay over 10 months)

NEAC 2019 - Main Gallery
Main Gallery - near end wall
NEAC 2019 - Main Gallery near the Cafe
NEAC 2019 - Threadneedle Space
NEAC 2019 - North Gallery and the monochrome walls
The New English Art Club (NEAC) was founded in London in 1886 as an exhibiting society by artists influenced by impressionism and whose work was rejected by the conservative Royal Academy.....Initially avant-garde, the NEAC quickly became increasingly conservative.....It still exists, now preserving the impressionist tradition.New English Art Club | Tate

The Open Exhibition

If the NEAC Annual Exhibition is NOT an open exhibition then the Mall Galleries needs urgently to change the heading on its website to say "Open Exhibitions and NEAC" - and to rethink its Terms and Conditions.  If Open means it is only "open to other artists" then it's essential that the artists submitting via the Open Entry need a better definition of what chances of success they can expect
6.1 Our open submission exhibitions are open to artists in the UK, EU, and outside the EU. FBA Terms and Conditions
otherwise it will get in trouble with the Advertising Standards Authority with respect to what is advertised and what is delivered.  I recommend a read of the following and in particular the sections on misleading communications.
UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing (CAP Code) is the rule book for non-broadcast advertisements, sales promotions and direct marketing communications (marketing communications).
Maybe the issue is that which I have referenced previously - that there is no open, transparent and explicit statement of "what is an open exhibition" and clarity about what those who enter can expect about the number of works which will be accepted via the open entry (i.e. are they wasting their entry fees?)

We need much better feedback for those who enter - for every exhibition - as to:
  • how many artists entered
  • how many artworks were entered
  • how many artworks were selected by how many artists 
  • average number of open artworks hung per artist from the open entry
Artists (including other FBA artists) can then make an intelligent decision about whether to enter and if so, how many artworks to enter.

For more on this topic see my commentary and charts about on Exhibition Metrics at the end.

The Selection and the Hang

When I'm visiting an exhibition I always ask people I meet what they think of the exhibition and get their views before they know mine. So in offering some views below I take comfort from the fact that I know I was not alone.....

My overall conclusion about this exhibition is that it looks a bit tired at the edges. Another word used to describe the exhibition by a person I talked to was "dull". I guess what we're both trying to say is it lacked a certain energy and "new art". (Others have commented to the same effect since)

I've got my reviews of previous exhibitions listed at the end if you want to compare with previous exhibitions.

That's not to say it's bad. That's because it does have excellent passages and some excellent paintings. However it reminded me of a painting which has bits which work and bits which don't - with a lingering feel of "same old, same old" and a lack of "fizz"

By way of contradiction, this year I spotted a number of paintings by members who were painting "against type" in terms of subject matter - or at least in terms of subject matter I see them regularly exhibit year after year looking in particular in the direction of:
The painting of a flooded valley (near the centre) is by Dennis Gilbert
The large blue maine painting (far right) is by Richard Sorrell
This was fascinating and made me wonder how many other artists had it in them to break away from what they normally do. 

HOWEVER I really missed Patrick Cullen's colourful landscapes and sincerely hope they will be back again next year.

Michael Whittlesea's compendium paintings

Here's my main reasons for being underwhelmed
  • too many paintings which were very sombre and were painted in various shades of what I call "murk" - brown grey and black. It reminded me very much of some artwork from the 1950s.  
    • The major exception for me on the "sombre and brown" front was Dennis Gilbert's Climate Change because of the contemporary topic and the subject matter. 
    • The problem for me now when I look at my photographs of the exhibition is that I've only taken photos of the bits I liked and mostly cropped out all the bits I found dull or boring. 
  • too little genuinely innovative or contemporary paintings - those that were tended to be relegated to the far North Gallery (or "out of the way" as I call it on occasion). Interestingly one of those artists, Fiona White, currently has a painting hanging in the BP Portrait Exhibition and provides a challenge to both the concept of portraiture and the media in which it is painted
Down to the Sea in Ships by Fiona White
Mixed media 35 x 52 inches £3,200
Fiona White - Born in Melbourne and based in Sydney. Her work tackles issues at the forefront of international political discourse. She has been has been a finalist in various exhibitions and awards within Australia and internationally. (From my post Selected Artists and statistics - BP Portrait Award 2019)
  • it's very sad to see a number of paintings by members which fall way short of the calibre of painting they have been capable of in the past. I'm no longer in love with artists whose work I have loved in the past. Not so much "bad" so much as "not good". (It's certainly not the case that all fall into this category - however there are some VERY old member painters still exhibiting). I've long been an advocate of extending real respect to those senior artists,whose painting is no longer what it was, by promoting them to a membership category with a senior title (eg "Fellow"), having their membership subscription reduced and their entry limited to one work - with additional (smaller) works being selected via competition with the open entry.  This sometimes has the benefit of perking members up. (I'll never forget Alfred Daniels retiring from the RWS and then coming back as good as ever after some years when he did not exhibit - and wowing everybody with his paintings which has a unique and special appeal). I sometimes wonder what's the average age a NEAC member. Maybe it's time for NEAC to review the age profile of its membership?
  • Hanging the wrong paintings in dead spaces - I suspect those who hung the exhibition are none too fond of works which might possibly be described by some as literal and illustrative. How else does one account for the placement of the very popular paintings by June Berry RWS NEAC in the dead space next to the cafe or the placement of the Liam O'Farrell painting right next to the door to the lockers in the corridor. Their work could create a focus in terms of subject matter and colour palette and yet it was totally wasted in terms of where it was hung.  I'm a big fan of both and my reaction was "what a shame and what a waste!". Not that it stopped June continuing to sell her work - note the red spot!
Two oil paintings by June Berry - in completely the WRONG PLACE!
(Note: June Berry is 95 this year, continues to exhibit on a regular basis and still submits some top class work to exhibitions I visit! I love her work - she is a great colourist with an uncanny knack for making you feel good about everyday life - and I always seek it out. She's also an artist whose work consistently sells well. Her style never changes but her painting shows very little sign of her now great age. I do so wish she had a website to provide a retrospective review of her work over time)

The monochrome walls

At the Private View, I identified that there were three impressive and largely monochrome walls in the North Gallery. Firstly I was really pleased to see so much work which focused on draughtsmanship and the skills of drawing in monochrome and/or dry media and/or the use of printmaking skills.

It's not something I often see at exhibitions and for me it was the standout feature of the exhibition. Not least because it included some fine work. 

Having said that, I think some of the artists should take themselves off to the Summer Exhibition and view the works in the Print Room and in particular that by the RAs such as Norman Ackroyd - and reflect at some length on the differential in the prices of their work and those of excellent and very well known printmakers with strong followings. 

Reducing the size of an edition does not entitle a printmaker to hike the price up beyond that of original paintings and the work of more well known printmakers! It's also worth spending time at the Summer Exhibition and this one reflecting on popular price points - for those artists who would like to sell their work.

The losses and the gains

Peter Brown's Presidential note at the beginning of the catalogue highlights the fact that NEAC lost three members since last summer.  The exhibition also has an extensive exhibition of their work.
Paintings by the late Karólína Lárusdóttir, Peter Kelly and Jason Bowyer
There are a number of new candidates. None had more than two works hung. Sadly NEAC does not employ the Candidates wall which is employed to such good effect by some other societies so you see the potential new members' artwork next to one another. It makes making decisions an awful lot easier....

My more serious question for NEAC is how it can it hope to see the best of what's available if it selects so few artists from the open entry.

Given NEAC's status as an art society (it's the one all other FBA members want to join!), maybe it should do what the RWS does and have one annual exhibition which is members only - and then another which is a 100% open exhibition (i.e. strictly no members work) with two purposes:
  • to foster the cause of figurative artwork underpinned by strong drawing skills
  • to identify the best of those who would like to be seriously considered as applicants for membership.

The Best of the Open Entry and other art I liked

Artwork I liked included paintings which did not look like the paintings of members or provided a new spin on old topics

I periodically lament that not enough people record buildings, events and the contemporary environment - as very many painters did in the past. 

One artist who is very much about recording the present or the recent past is Liam O'Farrell - who paints in oil and watercolour but is fundamentally all about the drawing. I love his tiny people and the fact he can recreate past urban landscapes.

The Tate & Lyle Sugar Refinery, London by Liam O'Farrell
I think my favourite painting in the exhibition (below) was by Paul Newland RWS NEAC. I just love his work - it just goes on and on being endlessly interesting because of the scope of his subject matter, his great sense of colour and balance between bright and clear and muted colours, optical mixing and the endless glazes (in either oils or watercolours) plus the scratching out and knocking back - sitting on top of some superb simple/complex compositions and some stunning draughtsmanship which strides the line between being very accurate and distorted to make the painting better. Plus it looks very contemporary! I love it!

He also paints real places based on studies and sketches done in the field. One person I was talking to about the painting recognised the building at the back and knew where it was.

Evening at the Edge of Town by Paul Newland NEAC RWSOil 36 x 48 inches £4,750
I was also very impressed with the work of new member Benjamin Hope - who was elected to membership after last summer's exhibition - which spoke of skill in draughtsmanship, perspective and the handling of a muted palette in a way which still makes it colourful and visually stimulating in an understated way. It's also both traditional and timeless.

If we could see more painters like Benjamin the future of NEAC would be in safe hands....

Studio Corner by Benjamin Hope NEAC PS ARMSA


To be honest I wasn't hugely enamoured with the choices - and disinclined to give them the space in this post - with the exception of the wonderful painting by the Vice President Sarah Spencer. There were other works I liked much better.

Whitstable Sky and Seascape by Sarah Spencer
On that basis click the links to see the artwork
Congratulations to Eve - I had a long chat with her about her painting - which is in the Main Gallery on her first entry!

Exhibition Metrics

TO BE ADDED - I've run out of steam - and need my dinner, but I don't want to delay this review any longer!

UPDATE: Thursday 20 June

I started out with my pen and paper this morning - and then thought 'what the heck - get Excel fired up and do a spreadsheet'. That's because I keep working these numbers out and yet do so on a bit of paper - and now I have files which means I can spot trends more easily!

So now I have numbers and charts (and a template for future FBA exhibitions) . 

First the charts and then I'll explain what they mean
  • The first one is for artists and the second one is about artworks. 
  • They're both based on percentages of the total number of artists who painted the total number of artworks.
The above chart shows the percentage of artists who fall into four different categories
  • 74 NEAC Members (50%)
  • 8 artists who are invited (the Prince of Wales) OR the Honorary Members OR those members who have died recently (5%) 
  • 6 other members of FBA societies who also exhibit at the Mall Galleries (4%)
  • 61 Artists who applied via the Open Entry (41%) 
In broad terms that means 82 (55%) associated with NEAC and 67 (45%) who are not.

So - if you are an artist thinking about entering via the Open Entry you're thinking this doesn't look too bad.
On the other hand if you're an artist member of another FBA society you might be wondering what happened this year.
This chart analyses the total number of artworks across the same four categories

  • 276 artworks by NEAC members (72% of the total of 385 artworks hung in the show)
  • 24 artworks by the Honorary Members, Invited and Deceased Members (6%)
making a total of 300 artworks (out of 385) by NEAC members and associated

Then in terms of the Open Entry we have 85 artworks left. 
  • 8 artworks are being exhibited by the 6 artists from "other FBA Societies" (2%)
  • 77 artworks are being exhibited by 61 other artists (20%) 
which means 
  • 78% of artworks hung in the annual exhibition are by NEAC members and associates and 
  • 22% of the exhibition is by artists who have no connection with NEAC.
This means that we have an average number of artworks per artist as follows
  • 3.73 by 'normal' NEAC members
  • 3.00 by Hon./Invited/Deceased
  • 1.33 by other FBA Artists
  • 1.26 by non-members 

I'm really surprised by the "other FBA Artists" numbers. My gut feel is they are way down on past years - but I could be wrong and I haven't checked.

For the artist who aspires to exhibit at NEAC

This exhibition does not come anywhere near my suggested tolerable 60:40 split (members:non-members) for artworks in an open exhibition.

Many artists have suggested to me in the past that exhibitions which take money but do not show art are just generating funds to finance the show. Now I'm not emphatically suggesting that is happening - but I can understand why some might have this perspective based on these numbers

So what are the practical things you can do
  • if you are submitting more than two paintings you might want to pause for thought, it's virtually certain that no non-NEAC member will exhibit more than two. So why not just submit your best two?
  • I don't have the number for the number of artworks submitted via the open entry- but this is a very popular society and I'd expect the number to be high
    • if it were 1,000 entries then 8.5% were selected
    • if it were 2,000 entries then 4.25% were selected
  • such numbers are not untypical of very popular art competitions. The NORM is for work to be rejected/not selected. So ask yourself if your work is ready?
  • Finally, you might want to review how best you spend your marketing budget in terms of generating a return for the cash invested. Is this the best place for you to exhibit?

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